The Cross and the Lynching Tree

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(an essay I wrote for my God and Philosophy class last year. Everyone needs to read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Christians MUST speak into this moment, and Cone embodies a Christianity that feels true and full of the love that Jesus speaks of in the Gospels.)

 

‘Hope Beyond Tragedy’

James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, reimagines a way to think about the cross that is not oppressive or exclusionary. In failed attempts to speak about God and Christ’s crucifixion, many white Christians have turned the cross into a symbol of power, privilege and domination, justifying the severe horror of lynching through the use and abuse of God’s name: “[Lynching] was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims—burning black flesh and cutting off of genitals, fingers, toes, and ears as souvenirs” (Cone 9). This is unspeakably harrowing, but Cone takes the tragic events of lynching and the crucifixion and brings them into the liberatory power of theology that helps us reimagine the reality of the cross as “God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love” (Cone 2). This horror is made salvific in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who knows the particular suffering of the black body hanging from a tree. That is the radical paradox upon which the Christian faith lies; that God is crucified on the tree, enters into despair, sin and death, and redeems that moment and is resurrected. Hope grows in the bloodied roots of the tree that carries the “strange fruit” and weeps in the wind. It is from that very ground that the nonsensical redeeming love of God flourishes and transforms. In this theology of radical incarnation, Jesus, the Christ of inclusivity and multiplicity, fully enters into the brokenness of human life, and no part of creation is left untouched by redemption, including the very language with which we speak about God. 

Our attempts to speak meaningfully of God on our own will always be inadequate. Our words disintegrate and combust as soon as they leave our lips. Any naming of God comes with our limitations in the way we speak, which is always in flux and in particularity with each human existence. It is only through God’s radical grace that we are able to begin to speak of the Unspeakable, and even though “nothing worthy of [God’s] greatness can be said of [God],” still God redeems our language and “has condescended to accept the worship of [humans’] mouths” (Augustine). The language we use to speak about God, then, can only ever be elusive, fluid, never-grasping, always on the tip of the tongue, never lodged in the throat. It is a fleeting whistle, a twitter of hope carried by the wind, a prayerful relinquishment. For if we think we know what we are saying about God, God-ness can become a justification for harmful power structures that do immense harm to human bodies and creation. It is this that leads to lynching—when God, in the person of Jesus, is subordinated into a dominant, oppressive culture, and when that dominant culture remains silent about it. To Cone, white silence on issues of racism is the “most disgraceful, the most shameful, the most tragic problem” (Cone 55). Cone uses the example of Reinhold Niebuhr, a prominent and popular white American theologian who was resoundingly silent on race issues of his time, including lynching. Niebuhr is but one example of the entire structure of the white Church that benefited from racist structures and ignored “Jesus… in the crucified bodies in [their] midst… the real scandal of the cross” (Cone 158).

The radical and demanding call of the Christian is to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering, and in America’s case, the abused black bodies, because they are Jesus in our midst. Cone wonders how American Christianity continues to miss this rather obvious comparison: “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection” (Cone 31). The over-emphasis in white churches on the individual “soul” to be saved and white Christians’ often limited, narrow imaginations kept them from encountering the suffering one in their midst, as Ida B. Wells points out: “Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians” (Cone 132). When “souls” are privileged over bodies, or when bodies are completely neglected when doing theology, tragedies like lynching and crucifixion happen. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? cries the one “Of the bleeding mouth… On the cross of the South” (Cone 114).

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 We are ultimately called to join Christ and the lynched body on that tree, for even in the shattering of a body in the depths of hell, God is fully and radically present, already transforming that moment. “The gospel of Jesus is… a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection” (Cone 150). This is a concrete transformation for all that becomes a liberating event, for, as Elizabeth Johnson writes in She Who Is, “God is the God of all-inclusive love who wills the wholeness and humanity of everyone, especially the poor and heavy burdened” (Johnson 166). When we are redeemed by this all-inclusive love, we can’t help but love the Other who we encounter through grace. There is a different logic played out on the cross—it is not an economic exchange or substitutionary atonement of sinfulness for purity but a radical “message of liberation in an unredeemed and tortured world” (Cone 155). It is a Spirit in-breaking of the broken, a rupturing-in, inter-ruption of sin, a miracle of hope.

Imagination plays a unique role in reforming our minds when doing theology. Cone, in the tradition of many black theologians and artists, elevates art, song and poetry to the state of theology because these expand our views, giving us a taste of the full multiplicity of the Divine. God speaks to us in new ways through metaphor and language, and in the context of civil rights, it was through art and dance and song that black folks affirmed their humanity. Language transcended itself and became a very concrete hope communicated in song and word: “Black suffering needs radical and creative voices, prophetic advocates who can tell the brutal and beautiful stories of how oppressed black people survived with a measure of dignity when they were not meant to” (Cone 95). It was through communal creativity that hope was reimagined and the presence of the Spirit dwelling among the suffering ones became known: “The Spirit…  pitches her tent in the midst of the world… In a word, Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us” (Johnson 159).

With the absurdity of Christian hope and the guidance of Emmanuel, we must enter into the despair of the human condition and hear the call of responsibility from the one who has been neglected and ignored. The redemptive work Christians must partake in is listening to the often neglected black body experience and continue to remember these horrific events, for “when we remember…we give voice to the victims” (Cone 165). Cone demands that the black, lynched body that has been pushed out of the conversation be brought back into the conversation and made the center of it. It is an ongoing process to engage one’s entire life in these issues, but Christians have a responsibility to do so as imitators of Christ, since Jesus engaged his entire life in walking with those most forsaken. 

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For white folks, who “cannot separate themselves from the culture that lynched blacks,” (Cone 165) the question of forgiveness for the unforgivable remains. Jacques Derrida writes about the paradox of forgiveness (if there is such a thing), in Questioning God, that it constantly brings us an aporia, for forgiveness can only happen in the context of the truly unforgivable, which makes it impossible. Ultimately, forgiveness is only possible for God in radical transcendence, for our language fails. The questions of forgiveness that we are brought to time and again are “the abysses that await us and that will always lie in wait for us — not as accidents to avoid but the ground itself, the ground without ground or groundless ground of the thing itself called gift or forgiveness” (Derrida 22). The asking of forgiveness for lynching and the violence towards black folks at the hands of whites folks is the groundless ground of this country. Cone offers a way for white people to begin to move toward something like forgiveness (a non-forgetting forgiveness) by “confront[ing] their history and expos[ing] the sin of white supremacy” (Cone 165). Through God’s radical, transformative, salvific power, forgiveness is redeemed and violent structures are slipped as “right relations” of justice, love and peace are established. This “perfect ministerial vision” is what Jesus came and died on the cross for: “Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet, we are not what we used to be and not what we will be. The cross and the lynching tree can help us to know from where we have come and where we must go” (Cone 92). And so we press toward a “new possibility of shalom” (Johnson 160) with hopeful anticipation in there here and now, confronting the brutal past and lifting the suffering, neglected voices in our midst. It is a work that must go on; the ‘new Jim Crow’ exists in the US prison system and the death penalty which disproportionately victimizes black people. Mass incarceration and state-sanctioned lethal injections have taken the place of public lynchings. This is the lynching tree of our day, and it affects all of creation. For “when whites lynched blacks, they were literally and symbolically lynching themselves” (Cone 165). But, as Cone reminds us, we are a people redeemed in our tragedies as we press toward justice: “all the hatred we have expressed toward one another cannot destroy the profound mutual love and solidarity that flow deeply between us…What God has joined together no one can tear apart” (Cone 166). 

This essay itself is but a prayer that my language too would be redeemed by the One who is Love, and that through grace, as Johnson says, I will always “listen to the loud cries of Jesus-Sophia resounding in the cries of the poor, violated, and desperate,” and that as the Body of Christ we would “ally our lives as the wisdom community to the divine creative, redeeming work in the world” (Johnson 176). Especially in America, white Christians must work to “confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation” (Cone 166). This confrontation with the brutal past is demanded, so that we may walk together with all peoples the path of justice and peace, respecting alterity, and allowing the salvific work of Christ to redeem and lift the oppressed in our midst: “Salvation is broken spirits being healed, voiceless people speaking out, and black people empowered to love their own blackness” (Cone 158). In this salvation of renewal and transformation, there is, as Cone says, “hope beyond tragedy.”

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